Three Things I Wish Someone Told Me About a Career in SEO

July 24, 2012
By Emily Cote in SEO

SEO MemeI don’t know if I have ever met an SEO who entered the field intentionally. One way or another, we Stumbled Upon (cheesy pun intended) this field and thought to ourselves, “Wow. This stuff is effing cool.”

In all seriousness, though, I wish someone had told me what to expect when I first discovered this fascinating career choice. Not knowing anything about it when I started, I approached everything in wide-eyed wonder, as though I had just fallen down the rabbit hole and entered another dimension. I had always taken the Internet and Google for granted. I entered a query, I got a response—done. What else did I need to know? As it turns out, I needed to know a lot.

Success in SEO = Adaptability

SEO is a moving target. When I started in the industry just four years ago, the playing field was quite different. When I first entered the game, PageRank was everything and strategic link building was akin to a science—you could build ‘x’ number of links with ‘y’ amount of PageRank and predictably produce ‘z’ as the result. Blog comments still contained followed links. Yahoo Answers was “cool.” Twitter was fresh. Everyone was trying to “go viral.”

Then I left the industry to do some traditional marketing, and when I came back just two and a half years later, I felt very far behind. I remember asking Rhea what an infographic was on my first day. (I believe her response was, “Oh, that’s adorable.”) While I was away, Panda had managed to turn the SEO world on its head. Content marketing was now “THE thing.” Pinterest… what the **** is that?

And it wasn’t only the rules that had changed, but the major players as well. In two years, the competitive landscape had shifted drastically. When I joined Outspoken Media, I was hearing names I had never heard two years prior. And people I had followed closely in the past? Many were either no longer in the field, or no longer relevant.

My point? If you want to have a long-lasting career in SEO, you have to be adaptable and you have to be fundamentally okay with change. You will never wake up in the morning feeling like “Well, think I know everything there is to know about SEO.” There is no such thing. And anyone who tells you they do know everything will be irrelevant two years from now. That way of thinking serves no one.

A Charles Darwin quote I read recently at a museum illustrates this point:

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”

The ever-changing nature of this field is not without its perks. Yes, it’s very difficult to grow a business and a brand when you feel like the course is always shifting around you. But this natural instability creates an environment where anyone can become a stand-out. Be the one to learn the most about the newest update or the next big link building method, and you can establish yourself in the minds of industry leaders and clients alike. Constant change breeds innovation, and innovation creates new opportunities.

Once You Go There, You Can Never Go Back

Shortly after starting my career in SEO, I remember telling a friend that I felt as though I had gotten a backstage pass to the Internet. Crawling bots, indexing, meta tags, and algorithms… suddenly the Internet isn’t so simple anymore. Everything feels different. I can no longer run a search query without wondering why particular sites are being served up. I’ll be at home looking for chicken recipes, and I’ll find myself analyzing backlinks, trying to figure out why certain sites are ranking. I’ve opened up page sources and looked at meta tags. I’ve pored through CSS code. I’ve looked at sites and thought, “I bet I can get a link from that.”

It’s a lot like discovering the man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz. What an extraordinary discovery! But then—what a different experience after the fact. I‘ll be honest in saying I feel as though I can never trust the Internet again. Because I know (mostly) how it works, and because it’s my job to understand the flaws in the system, I am always on the lookout for spam, MFAs, and inconsistencies in the SERPs. Sometimes, ignorance is bliss. It made looking for BBQ chicken a lot easier, that’s for sure.

Yet, I also feel like I am part of a privileged group who understands, and I feel fortunate to be where I am. For example, how many of us laughed together over “Explaining Your SEO Job to Your Parents?” The reason it is so funny is because it’s so true. We all share that common thread of working in a relatively new and unique field, one that most people outside the field do not understand. And this feeling of being on an island together builds a strong sense of solidarity among us, at a level I have never witnessed in any other industry.

It’s both humbling and inspiring.

Talking About SEO and Doing SEO are Very Different Things

Designing high-impact link building strategies = awesome. Actual link building = not nearly as awesome. Talking about link reclamation efforts = awesome. Actually doing link reclamation = not nearly as awesome. Talking about restructuring a site to funnel link value = awesome. Actually restructuring a site…you get the point.

SEO in theory is awesome. SEO in practice is very tedious, and sometimes even downright mind-numbing. When you tell someone you are in “search engine optimization,” it sounds very high-tech and glamorous, and lots of people are really interested to hear about it. But I don’t feel very glamorous when I have spent seven hours straight queuing up prospects in Raven for pitching the next day.

That’s why I think SEOs love conferences so much. We get to talk about theories and methods and strategies and tools, and we pretend like we aren’t bored out of our minds when we are at our desks, individually categorizing and analyzing backlinks. That’s not to say the implementation process isn’t important—far from it. In fact, implementation is the bread and butter of the industry. But I think there is a reason the SEO field has such a high turnover rate. What people think it is, and what it actually is, are two separate things.

To anyone considering a career in SEO: You deserve to know the truth. Actual SEO work is a pain in the ass. That’s why companies are willing to pay us to do it. It’s time-consuming, repetitive, and very detail-oriented.

I think to be happy in SEO, given the actual nature of the work, you need to have a firm grasp of the end-game, and understand why the work is important. You need to be results-oriented, and you need to be exceptionally patient. SEO works, but it doesn’t usually work over night. There is a long lead time between implementation and gratification.

So, what’s the payoff for all of this tedious toiling? Well, for one thing, if you are good at what you do, it pays pretty well. But more importantly, when you do get to see the results of your work and you can actually watch your clients climb through the SERPs, or build a better online brand, or make their site more user-friendly….Wow, there is no better feeling than that. Really.

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